Stress Failures versus Decay Failures

There is a rich history to the idea that the state of your personal environment reflects the state of your mind. So a cluttered office reflects a cluttered mind, for instance. This is why I made the connection explicit and foundational in Tempo by assuming that designed environments are primarily projections of mental models, created via codification and embedding into fields-flow complexes (the big brother of systems and processes).

Clutter is the most obvious manifestation of the mind-environment mapping, but I want to comment on a less-appreciated one: brokenness. 

There are environments where things are in a constant state of disrepair and brokeness. What do such broken environments reveal about the mental models that created them?

Brokenness implies a physical failure in the past.

There are two major sources of failure: operational stress and decay.

Operational stress failure happens when a heavily used system is subjected to a rare loading condition that breaks it.

Decay failure on the other hand, happens when a rarely used system is degenerating internally through disuse, until a common loading condition is enough to break it.

An environment that is in a constant state of brokenness because operational failures are coming in faster than repairs can be made is a state of war. One that is in a constant state of brokenness because things are decaying and collapsing is in a state of atrophy.

Neither is sustainable. A state of war must eventually lead on to victory or defeat. This kind of brokenness requires stepping back to rethink mental models and modification of field-flow complexes. If the rare loading condition is truly rare (example, Katrina), you might need to rethink your insurance model. If a once-rare loading condition is suddenly common, you need to redesign the whole thing operationally.

Atrophy happens either because nothing is happening in your life (so you need to get some action going) or because you built useless/non-functional environments. A state of atrophy is also not sustainable. It can turn into gangrene. You must either excise the decaying portions to protect the healthy portions, or start subjecting them to stress so that they start to regenerate.

Healthy environments aren’t unbroken ones. They are environments where different things get broken as time progresses, repair is mostly able to keep up and the brokenness does not spiral out of control.  The variety in what breaks down suggests that your mental models as well as the environment are evolving in a healthy way. If the same thing keeps breaking down, there is something stupid in your thinking.

Repair must also be able to keep up. If it overtakes to the point that your environment is routinely in a state of perfection, you are not doing enough. If on the other hand, brokenness accumulates to the point where you are constantly fighting fires, you need to upgrade capabilities all around.

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  1. I tend to think of clutter as an overloading of several distinct but related concepts:

    * Clutter as cache. Its genesis is often a vague awareness that there are costs to repeated unpacking/repacking or being lost out of sight. Why not leave the book out and open to the page we need? Why not leave the $15 off car detailing coupon on the table?

    * Clutter as exception cases of an implicit taxonomy. AKA “what the heck should I do with this?” That indecipherable “437 page welcome to your new health plan VERY IMPORTANT document”? Maybe it stays on the kitchen table for a bit…

    * Clutter as a holistic lack of taxonomy (or pathological taxonomy). See: hoarders, druggies, mentally ill, etc.

    * Clutter as defined by social expectations. Society does not care about your awesome dirty clothes sorting algorithm. Society dictates that responsible, proper people should not have piles of dirty clothes directly on the floor.

    * Anti-clutter as societal communication. CEOs generally have barren work desks. DMVs generally have barren countertops with bolted-down pens. Bank tellers generally don’t have piles of cash laying around. This can be considered a social communication mechanism.

    Depending on perspective, the first two (cache / taxonomy exceptions), even in their healthy forms, can run afoul of societal expectations. Like it or not, often societal expectations form the basis of the concept of brokenness.

    This brings me to the following question, from a real-life incident. If you don’t know what to do with a cable, do you (a) leave it out for classification (societal clutter) or (b) stash it away wherever there’s space (taxonomic clutter)?

    Well, when it’s me looking for the cable, I’d prefer that it’d not be lumped in with the KNITTING YARN! At the end of the day, if you don’t know what you’ve got and where it is, then all you’ve got is clutter.

    This brings me to my second point. In some respects, this kind of yin/yang narrative, whether within or without, allows a kind of “brokenness discovery” which cannot occur if any side has scored a completely decisive victory.

    So perhaps it’s important that we all just keep arguing, maybe switching sides when the other has advanced too far (i.e. The Game of Pickaxes but with things other than wealth).

  2. Stress Failures versus Decay Failures